Presicce - Lighting up Europe
Presicce is a pleasant small town tucked away inland about ten miles from the tip of the sunny Salentine peninsula. It fully warrants a stayover if you find yourself nearby with a half day or so to spare. The local tourism office ProLoco offers an excellent tour of the old town center. Claudia Ratta - the guide for the Berkeley visit on June 18th - was charming and quite generously shared a full store of information on the founding and history of the town. By the end of the tour we had conj ured a very complete picture of the lifestyles of both noble and ordinary folk over the centuries.
Notably, this guided visit not only shows the intriguing architecture and exteriors well rooted in Salento’s history; it also takes you quite literally below the surface of things. One descends about three meters into a series of cool, excavated chambers that extend outward from the center of town. Here one can visit two 'frantoi ipogei' - underground olive oil mills - that have been well preserved so as to replicate as closely as possible the environment of the work, workers and their accommodation.
Periodically one finds windows that functioned as dumbwaiter-lifts, and, one supposes, as ventilation, opening to street level grills. You lowered the olives through one of these, and they were gathered by workers who put them through the mill.
Not everyone knows that, in the past, olive oil was not so widely used in cuisine, a transition that didn’t occur until the 18th century. Up until then, it was primarily fuel for lanterns. The best fuel, such as that produced from olives grown in Salento, gave off less acrid smoke, and was prized accordingly. Production in Presicce was on a scale, and of such quality, that it was exported far and wide, reaching all corners of Europe, as far as Saint Petersburg. It was with the dawn of alternative energies - in this case carbon and electricity - that the industry had to radically evolve, as it became necessary to find a new use for the liquid gold.
Not completely verifiable yet fascinating local legend has it that during the first half of the 1600’s, a feudal period, a certain impudent prince Bartilotti, misruled Presicce. Popular rumor even has it that he regularly invoked prima nocta, the right to deflower brides-to-be. For this and other misbehaviour the nobleman eventually received comeuppance, executed in 1655 by a group of masked assassins.
To this day, Presicceans are also known as 'mascherati' - masked ones - a denomination that can be traced back to a 17th century phenomenon that linked outright banditry with an antifeudal insurrectionist ideology. This pattern should sound familiar to students of history
Conservative/Libertarian types might counter Bartilotti was not without good points. Under his governance, no taxes were levied on olive oil producers. These therefore arrived from all over the Italian peninsula, looking not only to reap profits without being forced to subsidize government, but also to enjoy the nearby coast and gentle climate. The sheer growth of the industry due to these magnate’s exertions resulted in Presicce eventually boasting no fewer than twenty three underground olive oil mills. End result: a historically unprecedented concentration of production. Lower/No taxes boosts growth. Meantime the decadent ruler has his way. Familiar again?
For those who toiled in these underground mills there were tradeoffs as well. Males as young as ten years old were conscripted. Twelve hour shifts, near-total subterranean submersion and a perpetual dearth of sunlight were offset by: less extreme ambient temperatures, relative safety from marauding Turks, and - one presumes - job security.
The Belgium born sculptor Norman Mommens settled in Presicce in 1970 with his companion Patience Gray, who wrote with great passion about non-British gastronomy. Some of Mommens’s work is currently being exhibited at the Ex Convento degli Angeli. One manger scene, executed on panels of copper in rich brownish-red tones, is on view in the adjacent church. Many of the three dimensional sculpted pieces are shown via photographs, taken from various angles, projected onto screens and walls.
A few of the actual sculptings are scattered about. All of the settings are deeply atmospheric, with a type of semi-atonal music-of-the-spheres playing in the background, tinted lighting and a generally mysterious labyrinthian staging of the whole. It all ends up in an open garden, where audience seating and a stage were set up for the evening’s presentation. This included poems, hommage, reminiscences by friends and relatives, and some guitar -accompanied lilting folk tunes.
Somewhat amorphous, with much more grainy rather than smooth textured surfaces even on the faces, Mommens’s work may remind one of giant chess pieces. Perhaps a full set could someday be realized and marketed. It would likely be one consisting almost entirely of bishops. No pawns, knights, rooks, king or queen. An egalitarian confrontation, and - who knows? - maybe it was Mommens’s (and Gray’s) vision that the concepts of nobility and warfare could mostly fade away, so that the great game could be played according to entirely different rules.